A new government policy designed to protect United States workers by limiting the number of foreigners that universities recruit is threatening the country's ability to compete globally in science research, higher education experts have warned.
Universities have traditionally depended on overseas scientists for essential research in medicine, basic science, engineering and other areas. But a policy change means that universities have to pay foreign workers higher salaries, more comparable to those in private industry. Sometimes they have to pay them three times as much.
According to the Labor Department, the policy is needed to ensure that universities hire Americans where possible. But higher education experts say it is resulting in universities ceasing to engage in some important research because there are not enough qualified Americans for the jobs. Foreigners are now too expensive.
"The quandary in which we now find ourselves defies logic," said William Richardson, former president of Johns Hopkins University, in a letter to labor secretary Robert Reich.
The University of Maryland has been hit particularly hard. But dozens of other universities are expected to be affected, including Harvard, Dartmouth, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke, the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania.
Higher education institutions have to ask the government for permission to recruit foreign professionals, and US universities usually hire about 20,000 a year. Others are recruited by private industry.
One of the reasons foreign professionals are in demand is that science research is an international business. The other factor is the dearth in the number of Americans pursuing relatively low-level careers in science research. They find they can do better in the private sector.
The change in policy was made last year. It has meant that the flagship campus of the University of Maryland at College Park has had to turn away a number of foreign nationals. In five cases, the university was able to find more money or change job descriptions to hire the staff they wanted. Talks are going on between higher education experts and the labor department to resolve the issue.